The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
by Stieg Larsson
Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
4 Out of 5 Stars
While stranded in a Barnes and Noble for a couple of hours without the book I was currently reading, I started The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo mainly to see what all the fuss was about. I was pretty certain that I wasn't going to like it as I'm generally not a big mystery fan, but saw this as an opportunity to at least have a passing acquaintance with this cultural phenomenon. I was hooked by page 65. Why? Two words: Lisbeth Salander. And why was I so fascinated by Lisbeth? Because she is 4' 11", 90 lbs. soaking wet, and she can still kick your ass.
The plot is fairly convoluted and, in the interest of maintaining suspense, I won't provide a huge plot summary. Basically, journalist Mikael Blomkvist is hired by Henrik Vanger, a wealthy but aging Swedish industry magnate, to find out the truth behind how his niece, Harriet Vanger, disappeared decades earlier. Reeling from a set of professional setbacks, Mikael accepts the case though he has little hope of unearthing any new evidence about Harriet's likely murder. As the novel progresses, he hires Lisbeth Salander to help him as he begins to unravel the truth behind Harriet's disappearance and stumbles upon several dark secrets hidden by the wealthy Vanger family.
As previously mentioned, I avoid mysteries because the "whodunit" aspect is usually unrewarding to me. As the daughter of a mother who could, 15 minutes into a suspense movie, point to a character, and off-handedly say, "He did it," I'm fairly adept at figuring it out before the end. But Larsson threw me; I smugly thought I knew who did it, Larsson let me believe I was right (even including a lengthy scene which I thought was building to the denouement), and then--WTF?!?--a twist I never saw coming. I was right, but at the same time was not right. Well played, Mr. Larsson. I thoroughly enjoyed being caught off-guard.
In addition, he had strong and compelling characters in the form of Blomkvist and Salander. Blomkvist is an admirable, yet flawed man (though they are, for the most part, flaws we can easily forgive and make him seem all the more human; most derive from the fact that his passion for his job supersedes what should be more important human relationships). Lisbeth Salander, however, is the real driving force in the novel. I probably wouldn't have made it through the first few chapters of the novel if I weren't eagerly awaiting my next peek at Salander. I've read in other reviews, and agree, that Salander is like a character from a Tarantino movie. She is over-the-top awesome, but that's what is so enjoyable about her. Pierced and tattooed, antisocial, and seemingly emotionless, we learn why Salander is the way she is. Salander is the product of a state-run system that mislabeled her mental state early on; she is the monster created when no one wants to take the time or initiative to properly diagnose an emotionally or mentally troubled individual. Despite what should have been obvious setbacks, Salander is a genius but understandably has some serious authority issues. She is at once a fascinating, yet troubling character that I look forward to reading more about in Larsson's sequels.
The Girl Who Played with Fire
by Stieg Larsson
Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
4 Out of 5 StarsIf loving the Millennium books is wrong, baby, I don't want to be right.
In scanning through the other reviews, I have to concur with many of the problems mentioned: superfluous detail (specific IKEA furniture is mentioned several times--as if I know what any of it looks like just because I have the model number provided, sandwiches are made, coffee is brewed, Billy's Pan Pizzas are consumed); a real dearth of poetic or stylized language; a cast of hundreds (maybe not quite, but it can certainly feel like it); people whose physical injuries should kill them miraculously survive; suspense build-up that has all the subtlety of dramatic chipmunk.
And you know what? Don't care. Don't give a shit. Because all I ask of genre literature is that it tell a helluva good story and Larsson, for all of his sins against the church of high literature, can tell a helluva story. Because a book like this relies so much on plot, here's the basic summary without any spoilers: Lisbeth Salander returns to Sweden after months of living abroad on the billions she stole from Wennerstrom; Mikael Blomkvist is now a media celebrity, though he continues to doggedly search for Salander; Millennium plans to publish a book on the Swedish sex trade (and they plan to name names of police officers and politicians who are involved, as well as bring charges against them upon the date of publication); both Salander and the author of the book become obsessed (for very different reasons) with finding a man named Zala; IKEA's 2010 spring catalog is described in detail; Salander is accused of a double murder and has to go into hiding; and Blomkvist doggedly attempts to prove an uncooperative Salander innocent. Of course all of these plot threads, as well as many others, are brought together in the end.
What makes this novel really work is the character of Lisbeth Salander. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Salander is established as a bad ass you do not want to tangle with. In the movies, we have become accustomed to our female action characters as being towering Amazons with pouty lips, glamorous wardrobes, and double D's spilling out of Victoria's Secret push-up bras. The irony of strong women in film (and many books) is that they have to be model beautiful and highly sexualized femme fatales that are desired by fanboys everywhere. And in Lisbeth Salander, Larsson has created the antithesis to all of that hyper-feminine-but-I'll-kick-your-ass-and-look-good-doing-it bullshit. Salander is not tall, she is not glamorous, she is not beautiful. She's described by others as looking like a rag doll or a teenage boy. She's the last person you would expect to hand you your ass on a silver platter. But if you cross her, you can expect things in your life to go very wrong very quickly.
The other genius thing Larsson has done with Salander in this novel is that she's beginning to evolve. Using her unexpected wealth, Salander has traveled the world and learned more about herself. She's begun to question her previous lifestyle and has realized that she has few true friends--and that it's her fault. Being anti-social and emotionally closed off has always been a defense mechanism for her, but it's beginning to dawn on her that the price she has paid for keeping her guard up may be too high. For the first time in her life, she has the opportunity to live a different life, but she's not quite sure how to go about it. There's an unexpectedly poignant scene in which Blomkvist looks around Salander's mansion-sized apartment and finds that she is only living out of 3 of the 21 rooms. He notes that, despite all of the new furniture, her home is soulless and completely devoid of mementos, photographs, or anything personal; it's as if she's uncertain how to make this a home and the loneliness of her life is evident. Despite this, she certainly hasn't lost her edge and she still lives a life of stringent moral standards, punishing her enemies without mercy and basically ignoring her friends. I also appreciate that Larsson does not set her up as someone who should be emulated (when Blomkvist blames Salander's mental state on her past, Holger Palmgren tells him, "I hope you understand that there really is something wrong with Lisbeth . . . Her problems go way beyond problems she had at home"). To me, Salander is a tragic figure. Sure she's MENSA-level intelligent, has a photographic memory, the ability to kick ass and take names, but who would want to be her? We also learn much more about her troubled background in this novel, which further explains some components of her behavior.
As for the central mystery of the novel, I didn't find it as compelling as that of Tattoo and there's a twist at the ending worthy of a soap opera reveal, but I still enjoyed the ride enough that I've already ordered my copy of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
by Stieg Larsson
Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
4 Out of 5 StarsI knew the end was coming. I knew it couldn't last forever. I had braced myself for it (or so I thought), and now that it's here I don't know what to say. That's probably a good thing because there's not a lot you can say about The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest without giving away spoilers and there's little new to say.
The book opens with Lisbeth Salander in the hospital and recovering from the gunshot wounds she received in The Girl Who Played with Fire. Under perpetual guard and severely injured, Lisbeth is helpless to act on the events occurring outside of her hospital room. After quite thoroughly stirring the shit in Fire, Lisbeth has made powerful enemies that will not stop until they destroy her credibility or take her life. She's become a loose end that must be dealt with and the only person standing between her and the world that has constantly misjudged and needlessly penalized her is Mikael Blomkvist. This is not to say that Lisbeth becomes needy or dependent on Blomkvist. While her situation seems desperate, Blomkvist helps return Lisbeth's power to her and she takes an active (albeit secret) role in affecting the outcome of her upcoming trial while Blomkvist makes plans of his own to turn the vitriolic media firestorm against Salander to her favor.
The problems with the novel are the usual suspects: too much detail, over the top and implausible plot twists, subplots that seemingly have nothing to do with the story, but I absolve Larsson of all these sins simply for the creation of Lisbeth Salander. Also, this novel came back around and neatly tied up some subplots that, at the time I was reading them in Tattoo and Fire, seemed trivial and inconsequential. Instead, they turned out to be key elements in affecting the outcome of Hornet's Nest. There may be subplots (such as Erica Berger's cyber-stalker) that would have come back around to play a pivotal role in later novels of the series had Larsson lived.
While other reviewers bemoaned the lack of Salander in this novel, I actually enjoyed the renewed interest in Blomkvist. While he's not my favorite character in the novel, he, like Lisbeth, is a force to be reckoned with. That they both have the same inability to compromise their morals, that both seek retribution against those who have sinned, and both intelligently and precisely use the tools at their disposal to exact vengeance, reminds us of why they made such a good pair in Tattoo. In addition, both take a firm stance on women's rights. Blomkvist says more than once that Lisbeth "hates men who hate women," and so does Blomkvist (yes, yes, he sleeps around, but he's honest about it and expects the women in his life to have the same sexual freedoms enjoyed by men; he does not objectify the women in his life and he never loses sight of who they are as people). Lisbeth and Blomkvist have much more in common than one might initially realize.
As I mentioned in my review of Fire, Lisbeth seems to be a constantly evolving character and this change realistically continues throughout this novel. As others work tirelessly to free her and protect her, Lisbeth begins to come to grips with the idea that she owes other people because they care about her--a concept that is alien to her. That's part of what makes Lisbeth so intriguing. In what direction would Larsson have taken this waif-like BAMF as she begins reaching outside of her protective shell and developing relationships that will sustain her? We, of course, will never know, but I think the final scene of the novel provides a poignant bit of closure to what fate might hold for Lisbeth Salander.